A circle of believers had gathered in prayer and Bible Study in a sacred place in the heart of Charleston – the nation’s Holy City – unsuspecting of a dark presence among them and the violent fate that would befall them Wednesday night.
Hours later, a state and nation would gather in prayer for their families, mourning the loss of nine after a shooting rampage in downtown Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at the hand of, authorities say, a young white man who fled the scene. Among the dead: a librarian, a recent college graduate and the church’s 41-year-old pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
Reeling from one of the worst mass killings in South Carolina history, the Palmetto State was shocked again to learn the alleged shooter was from the Columbia area, someone who bounced between schools in Richland and Lexington counties.
The state spent the rest of Thursday morning anxiously following the manhunt and awaiting the capture of 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof.
“I have to do it,” the gunman was quoted as saying before he fired. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Authorities believe Roof, 21, spent about an hour inside the church with the victims before opening fire around 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Six women and three men were killed in the shootings: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Tywanza Sanders, 26; the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; the Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; Myra Thompson, 59; and Pinckney, a Jasper County Democrat who served in the General Assembly for 18 years and pastored Emanuel AME since 2010.
An 11-year-old child reportedly survived shooting when an elderly woman fell on top of him.
Authorities said the shooter told one of two other surviving churchgoers that he was leaving her alive so she could tell his story.
Roof was arrested Thursday some 14 hours later and 250 miles from the site of the shootings in Shelby, N.C., a town about an hour’s drive from Charlotte.
Police received a citizen’s tip about a suspicious vehicle, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said in a news conference just before noon Thursday, and Roof was taken into custody without resistance.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley joined Mullen in announcing Roof’s arrest, Riley saying that “a terrible human being ... is now in custody.”
Mullen would not talk about whether Roof, who authorities believe acted alone, admitted the crime or whether police found any weapons in the vehicle.
“We’re touched by the terror of such an event,” Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said Thursday, adding that the killings would “have a forever impact on many, many people.”
Wooten also added that the killings happened on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the deaths of nine firefighters in a Charleston sofa superstore fire.
As Wooten approached Wednesday’s shooting, she said it was in “somewhat disbelief that we could ever face something that horrific again.”
It would be mid-afternoon Thursday before Calhoun Street, one of downtown Charleston’s busiest, reopened near the site of the killings. Charleston’s city center, lauded among the world’s top travel destinations, began to carry on with bustling activity amid a somber mood.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush canceled a town hall-style meeting planned for Thursday about a half-mile from the church. Lawmakers from Capitol Hill to the campaign trail adjusted their schedules Thursday to grieve, including Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Tim Scott, who both returned to South Carolina in the wake of the killings.
The tragedy sparked renewed national comments about racism and gun control, including a cry from President Barack Obama for a national reckoning on gun violence in America.
All too often, the president said, he has been called to the microphone to mourn the deaths of innocents killed by those “who had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. It is in our power to do something about it.”
Authorities, including the U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, said they are investigating the shootings as a potential racially motivated hate crime.
Late Thursday, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal assigned Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson Jr. to be the presiding judge in all proceedings connected to Roof and Wednesday’s shootings.
State Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said he drove to Charleston about midnight Wednesday to be with Pinckney’s wife and was there when she heard the news that the senator was among the shooting victims. She had asked Neal to come down, he said.
“No one knew the status,” he said. “They had gathered all the families together at the Embassy Suites Hotel ... and they would call the families in one by one, and tell them that their loved ones were deceased.”
Neal, who represents the lower Richland County area southeast of Columbia, said Pinckney was a close friend whom he met when Pinckney was a page in the South Carolina House during the 1990s.
Neal said he believes the shooting was racially motivated. The state needs to have an “honest discussion about race relations,” he said. Neal said, however, that he does not think there is any support politically for gun control.
“I just don’t see even this changing the fanaticism of some people for guns being everywhere and in everyone’s hand – that is the tragedy of all this,” Neal said. “We don’t seem to learn the lessons that putting guns in everyone’s hands regardless of their mental state is a time bomb waiting to explode.”
South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph said racism is still a major thread woven into the fabric of South Carolina.
“This is a state that feels that it is OK to fly the Confederate flag in front of our State House,” Randolph said. “Now that is a welcome to have on your State House grounds, isn’t it? ... We need to work together to make the lives of (Pinckney’s) children better in South Carolina.”
Randolph said the best course of action moving forward is to remain “on the side of doing right.”
“I urge the members of our organization and the state to remember that two wrongs don’t make a right,” Randolph said. “We all need to project a better image of South Carolina. We set the bar real low when it comes to respecting human life.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307. The McClatchy Washington Bureau and State staff writers Harrison Cahill, Sammy Fretwell and Jamie Self contributed.
NINE LIVES LOST
Several reverends, a librarian and recent college graduate are among the nine people killed by a white gunman in a black church in downtown Charleston. Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten identified the victims Thursday; descriptions were compiled from multiple media sources.
Clementa Pinckney, 41, a state senator and pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston
Sharonda Singleton, 45, a reverend and track coach at Goose Creek High School
Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, a reverend
Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian with Charleston County Public Library system
Tywanza Sanders, 26, a 2014 Allen University graduate
Myra Thompson, 59, a pastor at the church
Ethel Lance, 70, retired from Gilliard Center
Susie Jackson, 87, Lance’s cousin
DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, a reverend and enrollment counselor at Southern Wesleyan University’s Charleston Campus.